One of the joys with a visiting orchestra is to experience new sonorities—to be swept richly downward, perhaps, to unanticipated string depths—to hear brass playing grainier or more golden than you thought possible in the hall—or wind passages lighter and more personal than you might have dreamed. More importantly, you come to sense the ensemble’s psychology, as individual in its way as the conductor’s. Listen to an orchestra like the Mariinsky, and you experience shivers of delight. How Russian it seems!
Here we are, a hundred years later, and so much of Claude Debussy’s music still beguiles with its freshness! As Michael Tilson Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony through an accomplished performance of Jeux last Sunday, I was reminded how much the daily bread of sound in our own lives comes from Debussy’s late style.
There is always something a little peculiar about opening week at the San Francisco Symphony. Audiences have been away for the summer and are distractible. The orchestra may sound a bit less used to itself than usual. Sunlight in the lobby is still too bright for anyone to settle down. And programming commonly amounts either to a Gala smorgasbord or a visit to Denny’s, but seldom manages subtlety for musical gourmets. No different this year, but with a few wacky touches from the peanut gallery — about which more in a moment.
It’s silly season again at the San Francisco Symphony! A quick report from the front. And a debut teaser for later. Do we have a new Horowitz?
In perfect weather, with no need for a sylvan retreat, we San Franciscans simply shine a colored spotlight on the Davies Hall organ pipes in July, and Presto, music becomes festive! “My Classic Americana” is one of several programs containing well-known works Michael Francis has been leading this summer, with super zest and limited rehearsal. At times he’s got us clapping along in such good spirits, we might as well be at the Albert Hall Proms. The young Englishman has now conducted several summer seasons in San Francisco and is a great hit with our audience, bringing just the right touch of knowing wit, uncomplicated musicality, good spirits and schoolboy snark to the proceedings.
The Philadelphia Orchestra always WAS the sexiest!
Back in the publicity heyday of art music and the aftermath of Toscanini, Americans knew their five orchestras. It went like this: in Boston you listened to Charles Munch for Gallic excitability. In Chicago, Reiner ruled with a heart of stone but turned out warmer central European renditions than Toscanini had. You flocked to Bernstein for eruptive passion and disreputable energy in New York. And at Severance Hall, in a state of penance, you submitted to the owlish purges of George Szell. But nothing seduced the listener so much as The Philadelphia Orchestra, under the direction of Eugene Ormandy.
The pleasures to be had from a performance of Verdi’s Attila are a unique blend: one third Macbeth, one third Nabucco, and one third summer-camp hayride. The staging of San Francisco Opera’s ultimately satisfying revival occasionally reaches ill-advisedly towards something more sophisticated. When it does (i.e. all of Act III), um…er… one must close one’s eyes and think of Italy, because the visual results are mind-bogglingly annoying and meaningless. Happily, the exhilaration of this early Verdian work — led with commitment and panache by SFO music director Nicola Luisotti — transcends the needless awkwardness of the staging. Attila isn’t the most memorable score in the world, but it is pure, if unrefined, Italian opera. It allows singers to strut their stuff, to sing and emote with extravagance, and it makes for a great “coming attractions” reel for the masterpieces Verdi had yet to compose.
There was a moment when American opera companies faced greater challenges both producing and selling contemporary work, but could still be relied upon to produce the 19th century classics with success onstage and at the box office. Maybe the training and experience of musicians onstage and in the pit has finally caught up with the calendar. Maybe a newer idiom is less of a reach than the older one and the cultural displacement and carnage of the two World Wars has finally separated us from traditions of bel canto. Perhaps as listeners we hold different expectations of singers in contemporary work than we do of singers in Puccini, Verdi, and Bizet. For whatever reason, the production of Nixon in China currently gracing the stage of the San Francisco Opera is the most stylistically coherent achievement of their summer season and is bringing in audiences. Much praise to all concerned.